|Kill or Cure
"I'm sorry, Captain, but neither Ensign Vorik nor I can locate Lieutenant Ayala and Ensign Kim, their life signs are not registering on our tricorders."
Gerron had reported in a moment before with the same news, and although she'd still clung to the hope that they were all mistaken, Tuvok's statement now confirmed what had been Captain Janeway's greatest fear - two more of her men had disappeared, apparently without trace.
Leaning back in her chair, she closed her eyes briefly as she rubbed a hand across her forehead. "Tuvok," she said a moment later. "The search for Lieutenant Paris will have to be suspended for now in favour of ensuring the safety of the remainder of the away team. As well as us, here, checking your individual locations, I want all of you to keep a constant check on each other. I need you, Tuvok, to keep track of Commander Chakotay and Lieutenant Torres. Chakotay can do the same with Gerron and Tabor, and I'll arrange for those two to keep tabs on yours and Ensign Vorik's positions.
"Atmospheric conditions are interfering with the transporters at the moment, but as soon as it's possible, I'll have you all transported back to Voyager. I'll contact Chakotay again and inform him of my decision. Before we conduct any more searches, we're going to have to come up with a way to keep everyone safe."
"Agreed, Captain. It would be unwise to proceed without analysing what has happened."
"Exactly. Be careful, Tuvok. I'll see you shortly. Janeway out." Within a few seconds of the link closing, she had hailed Chakotay. "Commander. It's bad news, I'm afraid. There's no sign of either Lieutenant Ayala or Ensign Kim. I've just spoken to Tuvok and told him of my plans, now I'll tell you: I want you to keep track of Gerron and Tabor, and they, in turn, will monitor the whereabouts of Tuvok and Vorik. And as soon as it's possible, I want all of you off that planet."
"Does that mean you want us to wait until we can use the transporters? Because I could always pilot the shuttle back."
"The shuttle is an option, yes. But only if all of you make it back there before it becomes possible to transport; I'd prefer to get you back to Voyager as quickly as possible, and if that means leaving the shuttle on the planet for a while longer, then so be it."
"Very well, Captain, I…."
As a burst of static took the place of the Commander's voice, Janeway looked across the bridge to Samantha Wildman who was filling in for Harry. "What's causing that, and can you clean it up?"
"I'm not sure what's causing it, Captain, because according to my readouts there shouldn't be any problem."
Janeway stood up and quickly made her way towards Sam's station. As she reached the other woman's side, they received an incoming hail from Tuvok. Simultaneously, a warning light on the console began to flash.
"Captain. I am no longer reading life signs for either Commander Chakotay or Lieutenant Torres." Tuvok's even voice confirmed what the light had already suggested.
"Transporter room," Janeway called urgently. "I need our men back - now!"
"Conditions are almost suitable, Captain, but I can't transport them with complete safety for maybe five more minutes."
"Go ahead, Tuvok."
"Vorik and I are within sight of the shuttle. Gerron and Tabor are already there…."
Tuvok was interrupted by the urgent voice of the Ensign in the transporter room. "Captain. I can bring them back. All interference has now cleared."
Janeway gave a relieved sigh. "At last. Some good news." She started to walk back to the command chair. "Prepare for immediate transport," she called to her Chief of Security. "And I want to see all four of you in my ready room as soon as you arrive. Janeway out."
The Captain collapsed into her chair, stunned by the unnerving events of the last few minutes; the number of her officers missing had risen to five.
She sat still, her thoughts in turmoil, until the welcome announcement came that all the remaining away team members had been safely retrieved. Getting up quickly, she hurried towards her ready room.
As they stepped down from the transporter platform, Tabor glanced across at Gerron and shared a brief concerned look with his fellow Bajoran. Four of their former Maquis colleagues were missing, along with the popular Harry Kim, and the loss of their crewmates troubled both men greatly. Struggling to make sense of the day's upsetting events, they quickly followed Tuvok and Vorik to the Captain's ready room.
The door closed behind the men and Janeway gestured for them to sit. "Welcome back, gentlemen. Now, let's get down to business," she said, not wanting to waste any time. She looked expectantly at one of the Vulcans seated in front of her. "Tuvok. What can you tell me about the planet and the disturbing occurrences we've experienced?"
"Unfortunately, Captain, very little," Tuvok replied, just barely raising one eyebrow. "We found nothing that was not previously accounted for by Voyager's scans. The shuttle is on a mostly flat area at the southern end of a wide valley, through which a broad river flows towards the sea in the distant north. The hills either side are low, their summits tree-covered. We saw no animal life, although there was evidence that a variety of fauna exists there, and our tricorders confirmed that. It is probable that the harsh weather and our presence forced the creatures to take shelter.
"The teams sent to the planet followed the agreed search pattern: Ensign Tabor and Crewman Gerron explored the area beyond the eastern hill; Commander Chakotay and Lieutenant Torres crossed the hill to the west. Lieutenant Ayala and Ensign Kim took the southern route out of the valley, and Ensign Vorik and I proceeded north. From the various conversations that I had with Commander Chakotay throughout the course of the search, it was apparent that none of the teams found any trace of Lieutenant Paris."
"Yes. He reported as much to me," Janeway agreed. "But what about Lieutenant Ayala and Ensign Kim, and Commander Chakotay and Lieutenant Torres - what can be said about their disappearances? Did any of you notice anything unusual beforehand?"
"Individually, no," Tuvok replied, placing his linked hands on the table in front of him. "But perhaps once we have each submitted detailed reports and they have been analysed and compared, something may become apparent."
Janeway nodded. "Yes, that's possible." She turned to look at Vorik. "Ensign. When Lieutenant Paris disappeared, you tried to contact him via his comm badge but you got no response; was there nothing at all, no static interference?"
"There was nothing, Captain. I could not establish a link."
Janeway leaned back in her chair, a thoughtful look on her face. "I wonder why there was static just before Chakotay disappeared," she mused aloud. "I suppose it *could* be down to the atmospheric problems we were experiencing, but…." She trailed off, unable to finish her thought without more information. "I need your reports as quickly as possible," she said instead. "I'll have Seven go over them with me, then you and I will discuss the initial findings, Tuvok. I'll comm you when I need you, but for now, go and rest. That goes for all of you. There'll be a meeting at 0700. I'll be wanting ideas on how to find our people, and how we can retrieve the shuttle without losing anyone else."
After dismissing the men, the Captain moved to the replicator and ordered a large mug of steaming black coffee. With a sigh, she carried it back to her desk and retook her seat, staring out the viewport at the passing stars as she contemplated what could have happened to her five missing officers. She knew there had to be a rational explanation for their disappearance. There *had* to be.
Convincing herself that Tuvok was right, and they might be closer to discovering just *what* that explanation was after the reports had been compared, she contacted Seven to arrange for her assistance.
Fenarew sat, his back against the jagged stone wall. He sighed, watching with sad grey eyes as his sister tried to coax her young child to eat. The cold, tasteless broth was their only form of sustenance, and every day Neereta had to force the small boy to consume it. "Why do you even bother, sister? It only prolongs his time in this place. It would be a mercy to let him die."
Neereta looked up, one tiny part of her acknowledging the truth of Fenarew's words, but still, Rhudrin was her own flesh and blood - she couldn't let him die, not yet. "I cannot, brother. He does not yet know the ways of our people; how would he find his way to the light without that knowledge? I must teach him before I allow him to depart this life. I must be sure his spirit will survive with those of our ancestors. It is my duty as his mother."
"You are right," Fenarew agreed, sighing again. "But I pray he learns quickly. He could yet be taken from you before he has absorbed all he needs to know. Remember the Galandrun child, Yhamarel? He was taken while his mother slept. She never saw him go."
"Please, brother. Do not remind me of that sad time." Neereta clutched at the child who was now crying and struggling to get away. "Rhudrin," she said softly to him. "You must eat. Please. Come and sit down quietly. Obey your mother."
The boy cried even louder but sat on the dusty ground beside Neereta, burying his head into the torn brown tunic that barely reached to her knees.
"They say others arrived today," Fenarew said as his sister gently rubbed Rhudrin's back, trying to calm him. "Mherkal says a woman was among them. Perhaps you will meet her."
"I know what you are thinking, sister," Fenarew remarked, stretching his thin legs out in front of him, attempting to ease the pain that plagued them so often. "And you will not be the only one. It has been the same every time these last few months."
Neereta looked away from the child who was now almost asleep, his tiny body pressed closely to her side. "How can it not be so, Fenarew?" she asked, giving him her full attention. "We have been fooled before. How do we know that the newcomers are genuine? How do we know that we can trust them?"
Fenarew nodded slowly. "I understand your concerns, my sister. But Mherkal says the woman is like no other he has ever seen. Surely if they wanted to trick us they would not do so with someone whose very appearance would provoke suspicion."
"They are cunning, brother. You of all people should know this."
"I do," Fenarew agreed sadly. Memories of his lover flashed before him, the way his young life had ended at the hands of one who, it had been said, was newly arrived, but in truth had been a member of the group that held them against their will. A spy disguised as a friend. "It is hard to follow the way of the light here," he commented as a tear slipped slowly down his dirt-covered cheek. "Perhaps we are destined to live the rest of our lives in darkness, with no hope that anyone will ever be able to save us. To live with suspicion; trusting no-one until they prove themselves. So unlike the way we should be living."
"I am sorry. I did not mean to upset you so," Neereta apologised, reaching out to place a pale hand on his trembling arm. "I beg your forgiveness, brother, with all my heart. Please."
"You are a good woman, my sister. I know you did not intentionally upset me, so I forgive you, with ease."
"Thank you, Fenarew." She got up, carefully lifting Rhudrin and cradling him in her arms as she walked towards a hollowed-out space in the ground, close to where her brother sat. Bending, she placed the sleeping boy into what passed as a bed, brushing away a few wispy strands of sandy-brown hair that had fallen across his face. "Sleep well, Rhudrin," she said softly. "For in sleep you can be free. Live in your dreams a short while; enjoy your freedom from the confines of this place." She gently kissed his cheek, then stood up and turned to face her brother again. "We will remember our upbringing, and we will not be cruel," she said, kneeling down in front of him. Her brother's earlier reaction had made her remember more clearly the ways of their people. "But we may not be able to change the resolve of the others; they will not trust immediately - not any more. They will not listen at first - perhaps, never - and they will not accept the newcomers unquestioningly."
"Are you saying that we will?" Fenarew asked, peering into his sister's silvery-blue eyes.
"Yes, brother. We will try to help, and if the new ones survive the first night, we will call them friends. We will remember what we were always taught; we will trust until we have cause to doubt." She idly traced a design in the dirt, using one of her small, bony fingers. "And besides," she continued. "I believe the risk we take will be very small. The nights here are extremely cold, and our captors know it. After previous events, they know that people are unlikely now to allow a newcomer into the warmer surroundings of their dwelling place, and it is doubtful our captors would risk freezing to death in an effort to spy on us. Also, they have most of their surveillance equipment in place now; there is no longer any real need for them to infiltrate our numbers, either seen or unseen, to be aware of what goes on."
"Yes," Fenarew agreed. "I believe you are right. Mherkal told me of the one who died; the reason for the equipment."
"They are afraid."
"Yes. Afraid that their technology is insufficient to prevent them contracting another of the diseases that they have introduced into our midst. Perhaps, too afraid to risk disguising themselves as allies."
"Perhaps," Neereta agreed. "We will find out soon enough. If the newcomers are genuine, and pass safely through the initial tests, our captors will set them down in front of the dwelling places before very much longer. When Mherkal returns, we will ask him to watch over Rhudrin. Then, my brother, we will wait close by, and see what we will see."
Apart from a faint humming sound, the grey-walled room was silent. Bright lights shone down from clear panels set into the ceiling, and illuminated the only object the room contained. On a low platform in the centre of the floor, a long metallic cylinder rested, its shining, silver exterior concealing a multitude of remotely-operated precision instruments, each designed for a specific use. Inside, on a metal sheet that ran the length of the cylinder, a still form lay at the mercy of unseen operators who endlessly probed and inspected the unresponsive body before comparing their results to the ones they had obtained earlier.
Results they'd obtained just as easily from the alien's colleagues.
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